The people she knew, she had met under difficult circumstances.
She wasn’t the sort of girl who made friends—rather, she had contacts
in the art world. She was a jazz pianist and a poet, a singer/songwriter,
had taken up painting with acrylics and was practicing kinesthetic
spiritualism. Also, she was taking a kind of medication that made
her hair fall out along her part so that her part was becoming wider
and whiter, the hair that remained on her head looking darker and
coarser by contrast. Her mother called and wanted to know why her
hair was falling out. “Why don’t you do something about it?” her
mother asked. “What kind of a person are you that this is all right?”
Of course, she was the sort of person who had a lot of secrets. Her
secrets were how she understood it was herself and not, say, a peanut
or a broken-bottomed chair. Listen, she was sort of a reprehensible
figure. We knew it was cruel, but she did not like us either and would
sing wherever she went in piping notes like she was saying, “What
WEEP? What WEEP?” over and over again. When we asked her what
she was singing, she told us she was exercising her voice for an
upcoming performance and then expressed one of her secrets, which
were stale and sodden, private examinations into the nature of the
body suspended in a state of decay. Oh, oh! Our lives were so much
worse now that she was in them. She had a dream about an onion,
the she that was an onion. It was a secret she told us and that night
we too had vegetative dreams, the fetid earth heaving above us, our
best-loved selves dissolving in the slip of gray rot.
Her mother called. She danced for us at a party, partially on a tabletop, partially on a stage she created by using stacks of the host’s books
for a backdrop. She invited us to notice the way she used only the
muscles in her thighs to express the narrative. It was a story about a
swan, a lucky oatcake, a boat, and an evening sky. The apotheosis
was conducted through a series of facial exercises that were guaranteed to keep her looking ten years younger than her chronological
age. “My cellular age is only seventeen,” she told us. Her mother
called. She was invited to play the harp, a new accomplishment, at
the wedding of a friend of one of our friends. The bride was enthusiastic. She was marrying on a golf course, beside a lake, in the country, at the end of a road lined with beeches. There was going to be a
breakfast buffet. We were invited. We called our mothers. “This is
not just some other tale of woe,” we told our mothers, “this is non-quotidian, unparalleled, unable to be surmounted by ordinary measure.” Our mothers are sometimes ferocious women, but all alive.
Our mothers, at some point, guided our trembling fathers inside
them and said it was OK, whatever they did next would be all right.
We thought this would be a sort of new beginning. We all moved
to this town with some species of hope and had also started over a
number of times before. At a party, we took the wrong door out of the
bathroom and ended up in her bedroom. She had a tapestry tacked to
her ceiling that was red and black and gold and filled with hundreds
of tiny mirrors like the hundreds of eyes of a watchful peacock. It
was horrible to see ourselves in the peacock eyes of her bedroom.
We had ingested something. Someone knew what it was. The rest of
the house was lit with blue and green lights like the loudest place
there is under the ocean, but her room was dark and still as if the
air couldn’t move without a tremendous effort of will. One of her
secrets was that she had almost been raped. It was when she was in
college, a school on the coast that was nevertheless very far from the
ocean. She wrote a one-act play about it and performed it wearing a
giant papier-mâché onion with holes cut in the bottom for her legs.
There was also a hole for her mouth, so she could speak, and during
the play she would walk and speak, lost inside the enormous onion,
which had sat too long in its pantry, was sprouting a viridian-green
shoot that bobbed tremulously from its crest. “From my window I
could smell the sea, salt spray, whale bone, smell the boom Boom
BOOM of the waves broken against the shore, all this wreckage, all
this birth,” was one of the lines she shouted from inside the onion.
We were in the audience, of course. We could not make ourselves
just stay home. Every one of us had taken his hand and put it here,
put it here. “Let’s just get this over with,” we had said, and then
nothing else for a long time. Her mother called. “I made up the part
about the ocean,” she told us. “They were re-tarring the parking lot,
so all I could really smell was asphalt. But everything else is true,”
she told us. “Everything else is witness.”
Her mother called. She was performing body modifications, had
split her tongue so it could lick and flit like a snake’s tongue testing
the air in the room. Her mother said, “Have you talked to the doctor
yet? Have you put on some weight? Have you gotten a chromosomal
scan? Have you examined your stool against a chart showing optimum consistency and shape?” Our mothers once came into our
rooms at night and sat at the foot of the bed. We were reminded again
how much bigger we were than our mothers by the only very small
creak of the mattress beneath their weight. Our mothers wanted to
know if we’d made any decisions, if we knew how fast the time was
passing, if we thought we could wait forever. Did we think we could
wait forever? We were supposed to have the ability to start all over.
Just one more time. Some of us had painted all the walls of the house
green as an onion shoot. Some of us put his hand here and said, “Tell
that to your wife.” Her mother called. At the wedding, she wore a
dress made out of stinging nettles. She was so red with it her skin
began to crack and weep a thin pink plasma. Of course, the bride was
upset. From her room we had taken three little bottles of pills: blue
pills, green pills, black pills with glossy coating. We mixed them
together with some other things we had on our own. “Oops,” we told
The bride and groom had rented some boats shaped like swans for
the wedding party to arrive in. It was supposed to be a stately performance, at sunrise, across a lake gently heaving with large-mouth
bass and catfish and some kinds of game trout imported from more
wintery climes. The groom was a great outdoorsman. He was a young
buck. She played a kind of polka beat she said she had learned from
a Transylvanian aroma therapist she met while touring the European
circuit. Then she moved into an atonal dirge. Her skin wept so much
from the nettles she left a thick pink slick on the chair when she
took a break for lemonade and a turn at the breakfast buffet. Her
mother called. We were all such good friends. We hated each other.
We took turns spinning at the end of the dock, breaking our teeth
when we fell onto the rocky shore. Put your hand here. Put your
hand here. None of the boats capsized, but the ladies were still discomfited. It had taken a long time to make it from one place to
another. The day was steaming up from the lake bed. When the day
reached the tops of the beeches it turned white, just like that. Her
mother called. We had no shoes on. We had never had any shoes at
all. Someone gave us a drink as pink as a berry, as sharp as a nettle.
Nevertheless, at the end of the morning, they were legally obliged.
She set up a scaffold in front of the library. For a while she hung
there from a pair of gold hooks she inserted below her shoulder
blades. She had bled herself pale, breasts flat against her ribs, hair
receded almost to the tips of her ears where it flared like the shawl
of an inky bird, the sort of bird that builds bowers. An architect bird
we almost believed, at that moment, would take flight. Her mother
called. One of her secrets was that she actually had been raped.
She told us one night while we drank a juice made of nettles and dandelion leaves. We had turned over a new leaf, were cleansing ourselves by means of starvation and herbal unguents we rubbed on the
soles of our feet so that everywhere we walked we left traces of our
toxins. Our mothers thought we were taking things too far. “Who are
you trying to prove this to?” our mothers asked. Meanwhile, some
of us had gotten married. Our husbands had long torsos, blue veins,
delicate hands and feet. We told them about the time we lay on her
bed under the tapestry, what we saw, what we took. “He was a
stranger,” she said. “I left the door unlocked.” She made a fetish doll
with his features and carried it in her pocket everywhere she went.
Her mother called. “What do you think this is doing to your father?”
her mother wanted to know.
She was interested in the opposing impulses of Thanatos and Eros,
Edo-era pornographic scrolls, tribal dance, basket weaving, the intricate structures of the inner ear, past-life revitalization, crystal theology, scribing through the entrails of freshly slaughtered beeves. Our
husbands liked to turn us on our sides. They knew how to direct
things so we did not have to see them, could only feel the hand on
our hip, on our breast. Our husbands inside of us pushed past us and
into a place that was suddenly white, just like that. We were like
babies, wet and small. Our husbands wanted to know what we were
thinking, why we were thinking, what we were doing, if we’d held
on to any of those pills? “When it was over I asked him to marry
me,” she said. The doll had a wide mouth, always wet, always open.
She touched the doll’s face. Her mother called.
Listen, we knew it was cruel, but we had to have something. Our
lives were not what we had been led to expect. There were things
that had happened and kept happening over and over, like a hundred
small mirrors in a dark room. She was interested in self-flagellation;
she was documenting cases of scoliosis among teenage prostitutes; she
had injected an ink in her eyes that turned the whites permanently
black. Her mother called. For a terrible season we all dreamed we had
given birth to an onion. We held it to our breasts, rubbing it back and
forth on our breasts. Finally, we cut it up and made it into a soup.
“This is the only chance you’ll have,” our mothers said. “I didn’t believe it either, but it’s true.”
She told us so many things we couldn’t keep track of what we didn’t
know about her. Our husbands might like us to have a baby. Our
husbands think we should be mothers. Using an ancient Maori technique, she tattooed an exhaustive portrait of a man’s back onto her
front. The man’s legs were spread over her legs, his back over her
breasts, the back of his head with its thick brown hair inked over her
face. The man was slimmer and taller than she and where his legs
parted, the pear droop of his sac obscured her pudenda. Her mother
called. We said, “It’s like she was raised by cardboard boxes. It’s like
she emits a ravenous void.” Our mothers matured into beautiful
women. They paint their nails a coral color, let their hair gray. When
she talks her words come from the base of the man’s brain, where his
breathing is regulated, where his body remembers only itself. Oh, oh!
From her room we took pills and a sense of darkness, a stack of letters she had addressed but never mailed. We wrote a letter to her
mother. Our husbands put their fingers in our mouths and our ears.
We asked them to. “Put your hand here,” we said, but they were not
always ours to command. Sometimes our husbands had the tusks of
a boar or a single swan’s wing. Sometimes their tongues were made
of jade, their hands of thorns, their cocks trembling bundles of lilies
still tightly furled.
Of course, we were right and hardly knew it. At the party, she
danced for us. She left the doll in an empty space on the bookshelf
as an audience. There were many delicious snack foods served. We
were eating for two, had to go to the bathroom almost all the time.
On her back she had tattooed a man’s front. When she is coming, he
goes with wide eyes, a simple expression. We clung to our husband’s
shirtfronts. We were delirious, dizzy. There was a knock at the door.
She showed us how the narrative was contained by the gesture of her
upper lip; she unrolled a scroll from her mouth; she pulled out the
last of her hair and scattered it like feathers. Some of it fell into our
water glasses where it floated, feathers on a river, caught in an eddy,
going nowhere. We answered the door and it was her mother. There
was a strange feeling inside us all the time. Inside us was a white day,
but we could not go there, could not remember it. We had a sense we
were standing at the end of something like a dock, something else
spread out flat and fathomless before us. Our husbands honked and
flapped their wings.
Her mother was a cardboard box. On her mother’s side was stamped
This End Up and Fragile in red block letters. On her mother’s open
flap someone had written her address with a black felt-tip pen. We
didn’t know what we expected her to do. All the lights in the house
were blue and green. Nothing had changed; the music was too loud.
Right at that moment our mothers were calling our homes, trying to
get ahold of us. We hadn’t thought it through. She came. The man
went. Her mother was on the porch. It was raining and her mother
was getting wet. There was a sound like droning, a sound like wings
beating against the water. “Mother Box,” she said. “Mother Box,”
she said. “Mother Box,” she said. Her mother didn’t say anything.
Absentmindedly, we continued eating the snacks. After all we had
been through, after all we had done. “Put your hand here,” we told
our husbands, but they had gone out through the back door. She
went to her mother and crawled inside her. She turned around three
times like a dog. It was a terrible place to be, to remember. “What
WEEP,” she sang. We don’t know when she fell asleep, or when we all
did. In the morning, when the sun reached the tops of the beeches,
we were surprised to discover that nothing had changed.
Sarah Blackman is coeditor of fiction for DIAGRAM and the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a public arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina. Her fiction chapbook Such a Thing as America is available from the Burnside Review Press.